There is a long interview with Gay Talese in the new edition of The Paris Review. This caught my attention:
INTERVIEWER: Are you equally interested in everyone you meet?
TALESE: One of the key facts of my life is that I was raised not in the home, but in a store. My father had been an apprentice to his cousin, a famous tailor in Paris who had movie stars and leading politicians as clients. My father left Paris in 1920 on a ship to Philadelphia. He hated Philadelphia and developed a respiratory problem, and someone suggested he move to the seashore. In Ocean City, New Jersey, he bought an old store on Asbury Avenue, the main business street, and he opened the Talese Town Shop. On one side of the store he set up a tailor shop. On the other side my mother, who had grown up in an Italian American neighborhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn, opened a dress shop. Above the store my parents had an apartment.
The tailor business never really worked out. The craftsmen were fine, but there weren’t quite enough people in Ocean City who wanted to pay for handmade suits. So my mother became the wage earner. All the money we made was because of my mother selling dresses. She was successful because she had a way of getting women to talk about themselves. Her customers were, for the most part, large women, women who did not go to the beach in the summertime. My mother would give them clothes to try on that made them look better than they thought they had any right to look. She wasn’t a hustler. She made her sales because they trusted her and liked her, and she liked them back. I was there a lot—folding the dress boxes, dusting the counters, doing chores—and I learned a lot about the town by eavesdropping. These women, telling my mother their private stories, gave me an idea of a larger world.
…INTERVIEWER: When did you realize that you had talent?
TALESE: Never. All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them.
Talese has been one of my inspirations because he’s always been fascinated by the characters on the margins, and because of his unyiedling curiosity. I am a great fan of his journalism, particularly during his glory days at Esquire in the Sixites.
Earlier this year, Jonathan Van Meter wrote an excellent profile of Talese and his wife Nan, the celebrated book editor, in New York magazine. Talese does not come across as being sympathetic, but the piece provides a sharp look at his career, which imploded during and after the writing of “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” a book that became Talese’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Talese has a new book coming out about his marriage. I have no idea if it will be worth reading; I thought his last effort, “A Writer’s Life,” was meandering and dull.
If you are not familiar with Talese’s work, here is a selection of his essays, including Looking for Hemingway, a takedown of George Plimpton and his Paris Review crew, and perhaps Talese’s most celebrated story, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.